*Spoilers for Pose season 2*
When a student told me FX was making a soapy drama about 1980s Ballroom culture, I was not here for it. Then I heard Ryan Murphy was overseeing the project. The last White gay person who crafted a commercial Ballroom narrative—Paris is Burning director Jennie Livingston—got dragged for a directorial vision that reduced Ballroom from a complex community ritual to a dazzling neoliberal spectacle for White masses. There’s certainly no consensus about whether Livingston done right or wrong, my point is that making an accurate, holistic representation of Ballroom that is also uplifting and respectful is hard, especially when outsiders are involved.
Good news: Pose fucking nails it. I don’t mean everything is totally accurate. I question the time frame for some of the voguing (vogue is broken up by Old and New Way, and some moves are pretty New Way). I’m also leery of how often “realness” reflects a contemporary usage popularized by RuPaul’s Drag Race rather than the more traditional ballroom meaning of heteronormative passability. But every time I watch Pose, I thank the writers, directors, producers, and actors for delivering nuanced narratives and storylines that avoid hackneyed tropes without looking away from hard realities. I also love how Ballroom is represented with skill, aplomb, and respectful historical accuracy. Here’s how Pose does Ballroom representation well.
1. Paris easter eggs. Released in 1990, the documentary Paris is Burning was the only real ballroom text for decades. And the people in that film—especially their statements, lewks, jokes, and ball work—have become pop culture touchstones. Even if you don’t know the documentary, I promise you’ve heard some of the lines, especially if you’ve ever watched RuPaul’s Drag Race. Pose season 2 has some v satisfying call backs to Paris. For example, the ep. 8 scene of Angel and Blanca dancing down the beach looks very much like Carmen and Brooke Xtravagena doing the same:
Angel’s ep. 2 entry into the modeling world visually and narratively parallels Octavia St. Laurent’s experience at the Eileen Ford model agency cattle-call search. Damon booking a European tour with Malcolm McLaren echoes Willie Ninja’s mention of dancing for Malcolm McLaren. Even the two young homeless teens palling around outside a Ball in ep. 10 evoke the unnamed young teens Livingston interviewed.
2. IN ADDITION to these Paris touchstones, Pose extends its connection by referencing non-filmed aspects of the people in the documentary. This is most poignant in ep. 3 where Electra and Co. “cocoon” a White businessman who accidentally died at Electra’s BDSM establishment. The drastic steps they take to wrap and pack his body in a trunk (which Electra will keep for the rest of her life) is framed as safer than trusting the police or the criminal justice system. Just in case some watchers are not up on their Paris lore, Pose explicitly telegraphs the connection by ending with a quote from Dorian Corey, one of the most iconic figures in Paris Is Burning, and known for offering a complex and empathetic narrative voice that levels out Livingston’s depiction of Ballroom life as triumph and flash. If you research anything about Paris, you will immediately find articles about Corey’s death or, more specifically, what was found in Corey’s closet (you know what’s coming): a partially mummified body in the fetal position wrapped in naugahyde (just like on Pose). The estimate is that this body had been with Corey at least 20 years. While details are hazy, two common beliefs are that Corey shot a home invader or an abusive lover in self-defense. Corey clearly made the decision that it was safer to live with this body forever than go to the police and trust the criminal justice system. The Pose episode ends with Electra ruminating about the emotional and physical responsibility she now carries, but never does the show question the ethics of her final decision. Like Corey, we are asked to remember the unbearably unjust price a person such as Electra would pay for doing what society would consider “the right thing.”
3. Pose also fills in important details that Paris has been critiqued for dropping. The only real reference to Ballroom history in Paris is Corey’s mention of how Balls grew from 1950s and 1960s drag queen pageants. But in Pose ep. 1, when the girls discuss the history of Balls, Electra says “Crystal LaBeija lost one too many titles to White girls.” The founder and first mother of the House of LaBeija, Crystal, developed the House and Ball scene as an alternative to the White-dominated drag queen pageants she participated in and hated. There’s a old documentary called The Queen (1968), which is a rather dull depiction of drag queen contestants in the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest. The jewel of this film comes during the last few minutes: Crystal, who placed fourth, lets us know that she has FUCKING HAD IT with the racist beauty standards and winner selection process.
So what does Crystal do about it? Oh just heads the formation of Ballroom as an alt performance scene for queer Black and Brown people. In the next episode of Pose, when Electra tries to recruit Tess for her House of Wintour, Tess responds “ain’t no White girls in Ballroom.” While there were White people in Ballroom (Corey was one), this statement reinforces the previous allusion to Crystal. In short, Pose communicates how Ballroom is designed as a space for people who are not only marginalized by dominant culture, but by White queer culture as well.
Its also worth noting that in ep. 2 Pray Tell makes sure the children “know your history” by explaining how Paris DuPree invented voguing. You might not realize that Paris is Burning is named after Paris DuPree, and specifically a Ball Paris hosted called Paris is Burning. You might not know this because Livingston fails to name or identify Paris in the film, or make the explicit connection between the name of the film and Paris’s Ball. Don’t be shocked but Livingston’s omissions didn’t sit well with Paris. Its poignant, then, that Pose not only names Paris, but makes Paris visible within the history and lore of Ballroom.
4. Pose deals with real Ballroom people and shit. The ep. 10 storyline touches on how the Ball management structure (Electra, Lulu, and Angel reference the MCs–also called Commentators–and the judging panel) is dominated by men, and how there is a circumscribed amount of “femme queen” categories.
a) Let me first draw your attention to the aforementioned judging panel. Plz note the judge in the center—the one that hands out all the trophies.
That’s just José FUCKING Xtravaganza, a legendary ballroom performer. You might know José from his feature in Icona Pop’s “Up All Night” music video, which recreates a Ball event. Or maybe if you’re deep in like me, you can spot his 3-second cameo in Paris is Burning—he’s one of the teen voguers. Or maybe you know his story because its Damon and Ricky’s dream: José became a backup dancer for Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour.
b) Let me now draw your attention to the issues discussed, because they’re real fucking Ballroom issues. In his excellent ethnography Butch Queens Up in Pumps (2013), Marlon Bailey discusses how Houses might be governed by mothers but fathers often occupy more authoritative positions within the national ballroom structure. Moreover, virtually all MCs/Commentators are men, and, due to the lack of “women, butch, and femme queen” Ball categories, women, butches, and transgender people (WBT) had to create a separate micro Ball scene in the mid 2000s (224).
c) Let me finally draw your attention to how Pray Tell and the other masculine commentators address this gender issue: they all do drag. Maybe this seems like a quick fix, but the plot trajectory actually allows Pose to show one more more layer of Ballroom; while Ballroom scenes this season focus on realness, voguing, and house competitions, there’s a popular category called Butch Queens Up in Drags (Paris DuPree was actually a competitor in this category, as was another legendary House Mother, Pepper LaBeija).
The Pose Commentators say they want to perform as “butch queen up in drags first time at a Ball.” I don’t know if this subcategory always happens, but its a documented Ball category shown in Paris is Burning. Including this category in the Pose storyline helps us to see how truly multifarious Ballroom is.
Conclusion: fucking watch Pose. Its delightful.
Also learn more about Ballroom:
Marlon Bailey, Butch Queens Up in Pumps
Marlon Bailey, “Gender/Racial Realness: Theorizing the Gender System in Ballroom Culture”
let me be real you should read anything by Marlon Bailey, he’s my ultimate professor crush
Jonathan David Jackson, “The Social World of Voguing”
bell hooks, “Is Paris Burning”
Judith Butler, “Gender is Burning”
My House (2018, Viceland)
Paris is Burning (1990)
The Queen (1968)